This veteran travel entrepreneur has been working to take the five decades old friendship between Nepal and Bulgaria to new heights.
Nepal started extending the hands of friendship to countries across the world after the dawn of democracy in 1951. In this process of making friends, the Himalayan nation on April 1968 established formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of Bulgaria. Over these 53 years, the bilateral relations between the two countries have been cordial based on mutual understanding and goodwill. Currently, Nepal’s ambassador to the Russian Federation also works as ambassador to Bulgaria and Bulgaria’s ambassador to India is accredited to Nepal.
Though historically, socially and culturally very different from each other, Nepal and the southeast European nation share some commonalities politically. Both countries freed themselves from autocratic regimes in 1989-90 to adopt multiparty democracy but have struggled to achieve political stability over the years. “Nepal and Bulgaria share common views on democratic values and world peace and have been cooperating in international forums,” says Bhola Bikram Thapa, honorary consul general of Bulgaria to Nepal. Travel entrepreneur Thapa, who is the President of President Group of Companies, is in the business sector for the last 45 years. He was appointed as Bulgaria’s honorary consul general in August 2011.
Though the bilateral relationship has been smooth sailing for more than five decades, economic cooperation is still to gather momentum. In 1980, Nepal signed a Trade and Payments Agreement with Bulgaria to jumpstart trade and economic cooperation. According to government statistics, Nepal’s major export items to Bulgaria are carpets and floor coverings made from textiles, and musical equipment and accessories. In recent years, tea, honey and grape wine have also been exported to the eastern European country albeit in very small quantities. Meanwhile, Nepal imports mainly animal fodder, machinery for agriculture, audio machines for sound recording and reproducers, glassware, medical and laboratory equipment and silver. The current size of bilateral trade between the two countries is quite small with Nepal’s export to Bulgaria totaling just USD 6,158 while the import from the EU country stood at USD 842,862 in 2019.
Bulgaria, which has a population of over 7 million, has its economic strengths in mining, energy, machine building, metallurgy, agriculture and tourism. In the past, the two countries have talked about exploring avenues to promote economic cooperation. “At present, trade and tourism are the major areas to bolster economic cooperation between the two countries,” Thapa opines.
As a long-time travel entrepreneur, Thapa suggests that both countries need to come together to work more in travel and tourism and develop it into a medium to enhance their connection. “Nepal’s landscape, especially the Himalayan range, is very popular among Bulgarians. It presents us an opportunity to promote Nepal’s tourism industry in the European country,” he says. According to Thapa, Bulgarian tourists can be interested in adventure activities such as trekking, expedition, mountaineering, mountain flights, jungle safari, mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, canoeing, paragliding, ultralight flights and bungee jumping along with sight-seeing and tours to historic and cultural sites.
“Besides tourist exchanges, both countries also need to find ways to increase their bilateral trade volume. But visa related hurdles obstruct Nepalis from entering Bulgaria,” he says. Currently, Bulgaria’s consulate office in Durbar Marg, Kathmandu facilitates Nepalis applying for a visa by providing them necessary information related to the visa application process and documentation. For his contributions to strengthen Nepal-Bulgaria friendship and economic ties, Thapa was conferred with the Golden Lourel Bough decoration in June 2017 by the Bulgarian government. This coveted award is the highest honour presented by Bulgarian government to foreigners.
Thapa thinks that tourism development in Nepal needs a new approach as the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted tourism in a big way. With the tourism sector facing its biggest crisis in living memory, he says the focus should be on promotional activities as well as development of infrastructure to move forward post-Covid. “To achieve tourism development goals, the government has to formulate plans that are in-line with local needs and aspirations while maintaining the cultural value of the destinations as well as giving attention to the conservation of the environment and developing a skilled workforce for tourism businesses,” he opines.
Over the years, Thapa has been actively involved in different bilateral chambers of commerce and business associations. He has worked as the President of Nepal-Australia Chamber of Commerce and Vice President of Nepal-European Chamber of Commerce (ECC-Nepal) and President of Nepal Association of Travel Agents (NATA) in the past. At present, he is a member of the Honorary Consul Corps Nepal (HCC-N). Established in 2007, HCC-N is a forum of Nepali businesspersons representing different countries in Nepal as honorary consuls and consul generals. The organisation aims to play a vital role in Nepal’s economic diplomacy by working with the country’s diplomatic missions across the world and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Thapa sees the work of HCC-N as important in terms of promoting Nepal's economic diplomacy. HCC-N is associated with the World Federation of Consuls (FICAC), which recently organised a summit remotely attended by honorary consuls across the world. “It is our duty to represent Nepal and highlight the country’s image in culture, trade and commerce. All members of HCC-N are focused on strengthening economic ties between Nepal and the countries they represent,” mentions Thapa. He says that the government has been supportive to the consul generals and has helped them to focus on developing bilateral relationships between Nepal and other countries.
But he feels that much more still needs to be done in terms of legal and procedural improvements to reap the benefits of Nepal’s relationship with the rest of the world. “While honorary consul generals are playing a vital role in improving Nepal’s image on the global stage, the government should work on revising a few regulations, such as the creation of duty drawbacks, increasing the availability of credit, improvising rules for short and long-term loans and simplifying procedures in order to attract foreign investment in the country,” he suggests.